All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.


18 November 2013

Shared Understanding, Culture, and Curriculum

This is a blog post, not an article or a treatise -- so I ask that you bear with the fact that I'm going to be awfully superficial and cursory.  I just wanted to get some thoughts down, and perhaps get some feedback on them.

I was thinking about the music I listen to.  It can be roughly broken down into three categories: classical, jazz, and pop.  In the classical category, I can listen to and thereby identify by name/composer maybe some 200 pieces or so.  I probably have a passing familiarity with maybe another 300 besides that.  I'm deeply familiar with maybe 40 -- things like Beethoven's 9th, Bach's Concerto in D Minor for 2 Violins, Vivaldi's Gloria, Saint-Saens' Christmas Oratorio, the William Tell Overture, etc.  These are pieces that are iconic and/or of which I have recordings that I listen to regularly.  If you put Broadway stuff into this category rather than jazz, it would account for another 100 songs or so.  In jazz, I can identify maybe around 500, though my composer number is going to be much smaller than my song title number -- and my "passing familiarity" number is likely to be quite a bit higher.  My deeply familiar number is probably around 200 -- most of that American classics and Manhattan Transfer stuff.   In Pop music, I'm probably running somewhere around 2,800 songs I can identify by artist, with another 2,500 I'm passingly familiar with.  I could sit and sing through, start to finish (more or less) maybe around 200.

These are all just guesses.  I could be off by up to 200%, easily.  But my first point is just this: even if you triple the number of songs that I "know" -- I'm NOWHERE near knowing all the songs that there are to know.  iTunes has some 26 million songs last I checked.

Now for my second point: if I were to try to "pass on" my appreciation of music to someone, a student or child or friend, I couldn't even come remotely close to giving them a "big picture" of music.  Because I don't have a big picture.  I've got my own tiny little corner of the world of music.

That leads me to think that this collection of stuff with which I'm familiar is not a "culture" in and of itself, but rather reflects my participation in some particular culture or cultures of music.  And that means that cultures are defined not by looking at what any one person knows, but by looking at what a lot of different people "know", understand, and are familiar with.  How many people does it take to make a "culture"?  I don't know.  More than two, I would guess.  But probably not as high as 10,000.

One might imagine that the smaller the number of people, the more "tight" the fit between them has to be to establish something that can viably be called a culture.  In this way, you might think of culture as a sort of probabilistic enterprise.  If you have a sample size of four, the odds of there being some very general overlap in their tastes, customs, and so forth are likely to be quite good.  The odds tighten up, though, as you get more specific.  At some point, the odds get low enough that you say to yourself, "This is something salient."  You call it a culture.  When you're dealing with really, really, really big groups of people, it's harder to get even very general similarities.  So there's less similarity required to establish a "culture".

I'm not trying to give a hard definition of culture here -- I'm just pointing out some observations of how I think about it.  I suspect that there's much more that goes into making a culture: there likely has to be some degree of recognition and interactivity among the participants, for example.  But what I've said will do for now.

Let's switch gears now and talk about books.  Why?  Books make up a big chunk of our society's academic curriculum, and curriculum is really my topic here.

As in music, in books there's a lot I haven't encountered.  If you made up a list of the 200 most-assigned high school novels, for example, I'd probably only have read at most half of them.  (I'm basing that rough estimate on the number of books on this list that I have read.)  I'm supposed to be a very, very educated person, too.  I'd guess I've probably read more than most.  That's not bragging -- that's just an acknowledgment of probabilities.

So that means that, whatever sort of education I received, I was not given the entire "culture" of our society with respect to books.  I was, at most, given a taste of it -- enough for me to participate on a very superficial level.

Now comes the problem.  To participate in my society's culture, I need to be able to relate to other people vis-a-vis certain cultural touchstones, such as books, movies, music, art, television, etc.  But that can be hard to do if I've read A, B, and C, while my interlocutors have read W, X, and Y.    We may be participating in the same culture at some larger level, but we're not participating in that culture with respect to each other.  

Now I'm getting a picture of a web of daisy-chained cultural overlap.  I've read A, B, C, and E.  You've read C, D, E, and F.  John over there has read E, F, G, and H.  Nancy has read G, H, I, and J, and Alberto has read I, J, K, and A.  The "culture" as a whole is defined by the set {A-K}, but each of us has only a small piece of it.  Indeed, Nancy and I have nothing in common with each other except insofar as we can both be said to share something with others.

So now we come to curriculum.  What books do we pick -- and let's limit the discussion to literature for now -- to give students the best chance to participate meaningfully in culture?  Also -- to what degree to we acknowledge real inequities in society, and the way in which culture tracks those inequities?  In other words, and this is just by way of example, if all the rich people have read The Great Gatsby, while all the people in prison, say, have read Crime and Punishment, do we have to take that into account in deciding curriculum?  Is it important that everyone -- even the sons and daughters of people in prison -- read The Great Gatsby so as to have the maximum chance of meaningful participation in the higher socioeconomic levels of society?

By teaching a particular book to a student, we are creating connections with those other people who have already read it, and creating the potential for connections with those who will read it in the future. 

And that means that the books we choose are probably going to reflect "our" values -- where "we" are the relevant community.  We're going to want our students and our children to relate to us.  And while we can't teach everything, each and every thing that doesn't get taught is a potential connection that is not taught.  Since school time and student attention are finite resources, it's a zero-sum game.  And if certain subcultures aren't taught at all except within those particular subcultures, there won't be any ground for interaction at all.

But at the same time, if we are dedicated to principles of pluralism, we are going to want our students and children to be able to relate to others beyond us.  That's important, after all.  That's part of our values (again, if that's how we roll).  So it's going to be important that the students read the books that we've read, but also some other books that give them at least the starting place for meaningful interactions with other cultures and subcultures.  But still, a huge part of the motivation for the whole exercise is to create connections.  (Obviously, the substance of what is read matters, too. Phaedo will produce more thoughtful thinkers than Pokemon: The Novel.  But I'm not talking about that right now.)

So... curriculum.  Do we choose MacBeth or Romeo and Juliet?  The Mayor of Casterbridge or WaldenThe Invisible Man or The Well of Loneliness?  (Actually, scratch that.  Few districts in the country would teach the latter.)  Moby Dick  or The Lord of the Rings?

I'm no longer convinced it really matters.  I know what I, were I an English teacher, would teach (at least in my first class or two).  If those were the choices, it'd be MacBeth, The Mayor of Casterbridge, The Well of Loneliness, and The Lord of the Rings.  Why?  Because I've read those.  I haven't read the other ones, although I've seen Romeo and Juliet performed enough times that I feel like I've read it.

And that brings us to my last point in this meandering mess: teachers can't teach what they don't know.  If we're going to have institutional schooling, we're going to have a LOT of teachers.  And those teachers are all going to have read different sets of books.  (See Alberto, Nancy, et al., supra.)   So no "unified" curriculum is going to be possible.  The best you're going to be able to do is to give each student a certain number of "entry points" into the overarching cultural conversation, and perhaps into a number of smaller, more intimate cultural conversations.

But there's so many of those, you can't get all of them either.  Maybe the best you can do is try to get students to see the value in expanding their cultural repertoire. 

Because it's going to be up to them to pursue those connections.  And if they work themselves ragged doing so -- if they become as widely read as, say, me (again, I'm only acknowledging that I've read a lot of books) -- they're still only going to have a small, tiny slice of the relevant pies.

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